Dallas Symphony Orchestra,  Movies/Entertainment

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers – Live at the Meyerson Symphony

Most everyone on the planet knows Steve Martin, the comedic star of stage and screen for over 40 years. But while most know this Steve Martin, or this Steve Marin, those who didn’t grow up listening to his early comedy will find it hard to believe that this is also Steve Martin. On Thursday August 25th, Steve and the fantastic Bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers played a multitude of tunes that transformed the magnificent and prestigious Meyerson Symphony Center into a quaint upbeat music hall and, personally speaking, literally turned me into a bluegrass fan overnight.

Anyone attending the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center for the first time may find it rather intimidating. The opulent structure is very grand to say the least but it is amazing how very intimate the setting can feel once the entertainment takes the stage. With seats so close they’re even behind the stage there truly isn’t a bad seat in the house, or as Steve called it, “a honkytonk“. The Dallas based landmark was the perfect venue for the night’s performance as in some ways it was a bit of a homecoming for Steve.

A native Texan, born in Waco recently celebrated his 66th birthday last week, Steve claims to loves Texas (but if you take him literally, he says he changes the name of the state to which ever he’s playing). It was a joy to have him back home as he all too easily poked fun at the things we Texans know all too well – like the 103 degree weather.

Actor, comedian, author, playwright, producer, musician credits his passion for the instrument and musical style to Earl Scruggs.

As a comedian Steve is a master of timing, working the room and being inherently funny…even if he’s not telling a joke. A pure showman there were about as many funny quips, one liners and anecdotes as there were fantastic bluegrass songs. Totaling about 18 songs (including the 3 in the encore) Steve and the Rangers utilized the spectacular acoustics of the Meyerson for all it was worth and simply thrilled the entire audience. It goes without saying that Steve’s comedy can pretty much warm anyone in the room. Some of the jokes seemed rehearsed (as the Rangers get in on it once and again) and that’s to be expected but even they can’t resist his charm as so many of their laughs appeared so genuine that Steve probably made up much of the material on the spot.

There are actors out there who have hobbies outside their primary profession and Steve’s has always been the banjo. A staple in his very early stand-up days he’s been playing professionally on and off ever since. Despite his many years in entertaiment and his various accomplishments he’s still rather humble and accessible. It’s easy to tell that he genuinely ejnoys and has reverece for the Rangers even going as far as to make clear, comically, that they’re “not my band, I’m their celebrity“.

For those of you, like myself, who aren’t very familiar with the Steep Canyon Rangers you can read up on them here. The quintet features:

  • Woody Platt – guitar, lead vocals
  • Graham Sharp – banjo, harmony vocals
  • Mike Guggino – mandolin, harmony vocals
  • Charles R. Humphrey III – bass, harmony vocals
  • Nicky Sanders – fiddle, harmony vocals

Each Ranger not only got his own time to shine with a solo or two, they each got a little time on the mic going back and forth with Steve. One of the funniest bits was a comical story about not needing a drummer since Charles Humphrey’s bass provides the percussion for the group…and how his instrument doubles as a refrigerator. But the joke came full circle a few songs later when Steve exited the stage to allow the Rangers to take the spotlight. As he did, Charles whipped around the bass to reveal a removable panel in the upright through with he produced Steve’s beer. Indeed as Steve noted, “the bass player is the unsung hero” of the group but I also found that the mandolin (played masterfully by Mike Guggino) is also highly underrated and gives the group just the right rich but mellow sound.

In the song Daddy Played the Banjo Steve told a very lovely but funny story about writing songs. Granted this one song came as a result of a gag gift from his wife (a book of bad poetry), the joke of the story is that Steve quickly learned that even his own poorly written bad poetry “makes pretty good counrty music“.

Jokes, as great as the were, were only second fiddle to the music which just bounced off every angle of the Halls walls and celestially high ceiling. Bluegrass music as a whole is like a return to simpler times. The diversity in the Ranger’s line up puts their music head above what you’d hear at a fair or some similar gathering. But as the style is a mix of Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish traditional music there are still heavy leanings to those farm roots. Many songs still call back to nature especially Ranger vocalist Woody Platt’s own ode to fishing titled Yellow-backed Fly.

Actually very few of the selections played by Steve and the Rangers had any words. But one of the songs, more in the style of funny Steve, is this one which you might be more likely to hear on late night talk shows and the like. Note: this was recorded at one of their shows in London and gives an idea of what it was like at the Meyereson (even wearing the same suits).

As stated above there were about 18 songs to the set list (which Steve took great joy even making a joke about his “hi tech” iPad set list). While not every song played that night was named most came from Steve’s album The Crow and their collective effort Rare Bird Alert.

Once they played their final song, strong applause brought Steve and the Rangers back for three more songs. The first, in Steve’s own words was a downer, but then followed by and upper (a song to his wife called Best Love) and the amazing finale song Orange Blossom Express. That one song pretty much made the entire evening as the Rangers allowed Nicky Sanders to have one ripping fiddle solo. A double bonus to the solo, it not only seemed never-ending but allowed for some fun insertions of a few Zeppelin songs, the Simpsons theme song and about 8 more samples I couldn’t place but was sure I had heard before. Literally everyone left the Meyerson on a toe tapping high.

While this isn’t a regular occurrence for Steve, though he and the Rangers travel frequently, I highly implore you to seek them out (either with or sans Steve). You certainly won’t be sorry and who knows, maybe you, like me, will find you have a new found taste (or appreciation at least) for some good old fashioned bluegrass music.